If I know anything about human nature, I am sure that now that Christmas is over, a lot of us will be feeling post-Christmas blues. We have put so much emotional and physical energy into making Christmas perfect, that now that it is over we are feeling just a little depressed. We are missing loved ones who had come from a distance and are now gone again. It happens to me almost every year. Many of us feel guilty about it because we have been taught that depression is always about selfishness and narcissism.
I think this is a very narrow understanding of the many reasons for depression. Depression can run the gamut from a mild sadness to a terrible illness which paralyzes us. Depression may be a manifestation of a physical problem, or a natural response to loss of various kinds. It is not always self-induced, or an indication of a lack of faith, as some might tell us. We do not need to feel guilty when we are feeling depressed. It is human to be depressed at times, and is not always spiritually based.
What has brought about this idea, which permeates the Church, that depression is sin, and should never be found in the life of a believer? It is hard to find the root of this, but I think it has evolved from an over-spiritualized idea of the life in Christ. Our salvation does not automatically confer immediate emotional wholeness to us. Our walk with Christ is meant to take us toward that goal, but in the meantime we are all in learning mode.
We will have moments when we are challenged by depression, just as any other trial which we face as believers. We need to see depression as just this: a specific kind of trial. We can let it take us toward self, or we can let it bring us closer to Him as we seek His strength to endure. It is our response to depression which matters; not the depression itself. It is another trial which may take us to greater faith, if we will let ourselves work it through.
We need to remind ourselves about the character of Christ. He was not a man who remained disassociated and remote in every situation. He was a man of passion and deep sensitivity and caring. He wept when His friend died, although He could restore him to life. He was angry enough to throw the money changers from the Temple. He felt contempt for the Pharisees whom He labeled “whited sepulchers” because they looked pure on the outside and housed death in the interior of their souls. I cannot believe that such a man, Who has felt everything we have felt, did not at times also experience depression. It is too common a human experience for Him not to need to know how we feel so that He could be our comfort through it. He knew where to go when He experienced it, however, and sometimes we forget and let it overwhelm us without going to the Source of relief.
There are many depressives in the Bible. David was depressed over and over as he struggled with his humanity; he poured out these feelings in what have become some of the most beloved words in the Bible: the Psalms. In spite of all his emotional highs and lows, he was known as a man whom God loved. I think this is because he was always open with God, and trusted Him with the reality of all he was: good, bad, and indifferent. He looked to God for his help and that is what God desires. Elijah, that strong man of God, struggled with self-pity and succumbed to depression, but even so, God sent help to him, and continued to use him. Job certainly felt depressed, and eventually looked to God for answers and relief. There are hints of depression in some of Paul’s letters, but he refused to let that deter him from continuing to take the Gospel of Christ forward in every situation.
Instead of thinking of depression as “sin”, I think it is better understood as something real which is experienced (recognized or not) by most people at some time in their lives. However, it is something through which we can maneuver and still continue to serve God. It may slow us down, but it can be survived through the mercy and strength of God. I also think that if we have known depression, we may have more compassion for others afflicted with depression.
Being depressed is a trial of endurance, trust, and courage. Each day we wake up feeling as if there is no strength in our bodies; we find the least exertion to be overwhelming. Our minds are unfocused; we have a hard time making decisions. We feel sad, and our emotions may be close to the surface so that they are easily overwhelmed; or, instead, we may feel totally numb. We feel unseen and unheard, and lonely even in the middle of a crowd.
These are not feelings we can completely control, any more than we can control the symptoms of chicken pox or the flu. We can keep them from overwhelming us by committing them into God’s care. There is no guarantee that He will immediately remove them, but He can use them to draw us ever closer to Him as we find the strength through Him to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This may be all we are able to do, but it keeps us moving until we can get through it and the depression eventually lifts.
There are often real physical conditions such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, other hormonal imbalances, and other conditions which may bring on depression, but when properly diagnosed may be corrected. Sometimes we need to force ourselves to get a little more exercise: no small feat when you can barely get yourself out of bed. Sometimes depression runs in families, which makes one wonder if there is a genetic component in some cases. We do need to make sure there is no physical problem involved, if depression is frequent and/or chronic.
To those of us who suffer from depression, I have found that even though it may be the only thing I can force myself to do each day, I need to speak with the Lord and read at least a small portion of His Word. It keeps my mind focused in the right direction. Trusting God, I have found that although life with depression may be difficult, it is not impossible. He gives the strength and drive I need to do those things which are necessary until the depression begins to lift and I am myself again.
Finally, I have learned not to let others beat me down and make me feel guilty on top of everything else. God knows who I am, and He understands that under stress I may succumb to depression for a time. He also knows that it brings me closer and closer to Him as I turn to Him for strength and comfort, and to the realization, once again, of how dependent I am on Him for everything.
If you have children, you know that although they all come from the same genetic pool, they are all different in personality and gifts. I think it is the same in God’s family. We all have value, and a life lived under grace is accepting ourselves as we are, with gratitude toward a Father who loves each of His children, perhaps just for those differences. We must learn to accept ourselves as God made us and believe that He doesn’t make mistakes. We can be faithful servants of God through our depression, with His help.
“You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall. As for God, His way is perfect; the Word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who will take refuge in Him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the rock except our God? It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.” (Ps. 18: 28-32 NIV)